Covid: Was WHO's Wuhan visit a charade or a legitimate fact-finding mission

An ominous fog shrouded the Wuhan Institute of Virology this morning as the World Health Organisation team arrived for their much-anticipated visit.

This is the lab which some, particularly the Trump administration, have suggested might be the source of Covid -19.

Situated on the outskirts of Wuhan, it specialises in research into dangerous diseases and bat-borne viruses. Its lead scientist, She Zhengli, is known as 'batwoman' and has said she’d bet her life on the institute having nothing to do with outbreak.

Talking to her and seeing inside the lab was regarded as a key part of the teams fact-finding mission on the ground in Wuhan. Professor Dwyer is on the investigation team that got to meet her today and when I spoke to him after the visit, he told me she had been “frank and open’’ about the work they do there.

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The team had quizzed her and other senior staff members ‘’fairly firmly’’ about what viruses they store at the facility and the staff security and hygiene measures in place.

If a virus did escape from the lab, it would most likely have been via someone who works there. Professor Dwyer said what he’d seen has given him no cause for concern, but admitted it was a short visit. They were inside for just a few hours, and follow up questions in writing would be required (just for further clarification, the professor was keen to stress).

  • Professor Dwyer describes his experience of the Wuhan Institute of Virology

For the past week, the WHO team has been seen getting on and off buses and being whisked around the city to various venues, including the market where the first cluster of cases were identified. But with little left to see and unable to gather evidence themselves they are relying on Chinese sources of information.

When they were taken to an exhibition celebrating how China tackled the virus in Wuhan, it only added to the criticism that the whole visit is little more than a charade. The World Health Organisation has already been accused of pandering to the Chinese Government.

  • Professor Dwyer insists his visit to Wuhan on behalf of WHO is not part of a charade

I put that accusation to Professor Dwyer and he said he had seen no evidence of that during his time in Wuhan so far. He suggested that when there is a data vacuum, speculation and politics tend to fill the gap. He said he hoped that the mission they were undertaking and what they had learned would go some way to allay those concerns.

However, he does not expect to leave Wuhan next week having answered what he called ‘’the $60 million question”. He believes it could take years to establish the exact origin of Covid-19.

The experience of SARS and Ebola indicates it will take a long time and not in more than one hundred years has there been a pandemic on this scale to investigate.  Never before has a scientific mission faced such intense scrutiny and tight security.